One lament sometimes aired about the Florida Keys is that bars are the only evening entertainment.
But a closer look reveals a multitude of night activities on the water. All bring something unique for tourists to do after the sun goes down.
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Coral reefs in the Florida Keys are one of the state’s most intriguing natural wonders, but not everyone is equipped to snorkel or scuba dive in the open ocean. I’ve always been curious about what the reef would look like at night but never courageous enough for a night dive.
So when I heard about a new glass-bottom boat operating out of Robbie’s Marina in the mid-Keys, I decided to check it out as one of several ways to enjoy the unique aquatic pleasures of the Keys by night.
Dubbed the Transparensea by owner Brian McCadie, the 46-foot Newton boat features two viewing wells and carries about 30 guests at a comfortable capacity. Although there are other operators of glass-bottom boats in the Keys, “No one else does the night,” McCadie said.
The glass-bottom boat Transparensea on a night tour of the coral and marine life at the Alligator Reef lighthouse off Islamorada. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Robbie’s Marina
Two stops are offered on a two-hour tour. Coral is the highlight at the Cheeca Rocks stop, while sea creatures congregate at the illuminated lighthouse on Alligator Reef.
McCadie said he’s seen squid feeding on small fish and iridescent flying fish through the 16 windows at the bottom of his boat. On this night, the highlight was a green sea turtle two feet in diameter that made several languid passes beneath us.
We also saw porcupine fish, lobsters, a southern stingray or two and innumerable moon jellyfish as well as nearly a dozen coral species.
The submarine lights bathed the seafloor in a green glow. About 20 passengers, mostly families, made the trip. Seas were calm, but if not, Transparensea is equipped with a gyroscopic stabilizer to smooth the motion of the ocean.
Night tour prices are $75 for adults, $60 for children ages 5 to 17. McCadie also offers daytime trips, which are $60 and $45, respectively.
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A Cassiopeia jellyfish, which can be found in large numbers on the bottom of Florida Bay. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Another way to get out on the water at night is to paddle a transparent kayak offered by I Can See Clear Kayaking Tours in Islamorada.
While offshore boats showcase the wonders of the deep, paddlers on the bay side of the Florida Keys can view the wonders of the shallows, as it were. On the evening in late July when I took the 90-minute tour, the tide was out, and barely six inches of water at times lay between the kayak and the grassy green bottom of the bay.
While not billed as a wildlife tour, it’s not unusual to see baby lemon sharks feeding near the roots of mangrove islands. Giant Florida manatees have also been known to be curious about the translucent canoes, and fat raccoons have been spotted feeding in the mangroves.
And dotting the seafloor, a type of jellyfish called a Cassiopeia pulse and quiver in sandy patches amid the vegetation.
A transparent kayak set to launch from the Lorelei restaurant in Islamorada for I Can See Clear Kayaking Tours. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
To Katrina Reneau, owner of the tour company, the tour is all about relaxing under the wide sky, skimming along the surface, tunneling through the mangroves and enjoying the illusion that there’s nothing separating you from the water.
Our tour was a combination of two trips offered during the winter season: a twilight sunset viewing and an after-dark “glow tour” in which two strips of multicolored, battery-powered LED lights illuminate the underside of the kayaks.
The lights make the seafloor visible, give the kayaks an electric luminosity and attract attention as we return to Lorelei, a popular middle Keys restaurant and marina that the kayaks call home base. Amazingly, there were no mosquitos or other flying bugs to contend with.
Sunset tours are priced at $68, while the dark-sky glow tours are $75. Tours are typically capped at 12 people (two to a kayak) or 15 paddlers by special arrangement.
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A Cruisin’ Tikis craft motoring away from Snook’s Bayside in Key Largo. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Drinking and boating don’t mix, but you can have both on a Cruisin’ Tikis tour out of Key Largo. These singular vessels are an amazing sight — as if a tiki hut had inexplicably taken to sea. The huts are perched on a boat platform powered by a small outboard motor.
A bar beneath the tiki hut roof can accommodate six passengers, with a captain in the space where a bartender might otherwise be found, dispensing ice, cups and water while navigating the channels of Florida Bay.
The Cruisin’ Tikis are a BYOB affair, and passengers can also pack snacks or order food for the excursion at launch sites that include Snook’s Bayside and Sundowners restaurants in Key Largo or Lorelei in Islamorada.
Guests enjoying an evening trip with Cruisin’ Tikis in Key Largo. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Puttering around the scenic bay is a cool way to spend a summer’s evening. We got a nice waterside view of some high-end lodgings, such as the Bungalows and the Baker’s Cay Resort, as well as some exclusive wedding venues.
Sitting at the bar while the scenery floated by made for a convivial atmosphere. Jason, our captain, kept up a nice on-and-off conversation on subjects ranging from food (he’s a former chef) to auto racing to the PGA Tour while keeping us informed about wildlife, history and other vessels to be seen in the bay.
We played tag with a second tiki based at Snook’s and were scheduled to anchor for a swim in the warm ocean. The waters looked clear and inviting, but lightning strikes ruled out a stop, and we motored back to the dock a bit early, just to be on the safe side.
Cruisin’ Tikis’ outings come in both sunset ($79.95 per person) and night ($59.95 per person) varieties.